On the one hand...

Posted Oct 02, 2012 | New Media Project

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By Jason Byassee


My back and forth on new media continues….

The Apple Corporation is trying to get our local county to let it give free iPads to all public school students. My three boys would suddenly have something they’ve wanted that their parents have resisted: easy access to the Internet. They’ll also have something that Apple wants desperately—their lifelong brand loyalty.

The man hawking this plan to our schools has this title ... wait for it ... “curriculum evangelist.” Anyone want to argue against the notion that social media and religion vie for the same territory?

On the other hand, a buddy of mine just sent out his 25,000th Tweet. Compared to my 400, this is impressive. But he’s not just spewing his stuff on the world. He’s blessing his city. Brian Francis got to know the CEO of Chiquita via social media and was part of the wooing effort to bring that company’s headquarters to Charlotte—no small coup. You can tell he used to work for the Charlotte chamber of commerce. He had a hand in welcoming the Democratic Party to Charlotte with a Twitter clearinghousefor local knowledge. Brian acknowledges social media can be used for ill as well as good, but he responds that he’s met in person around half the folks he first met on social media. He sees it as a supplement to face-to-face relationship, not a replacement.

Back to the first hand, I’m teaching my first (sort of) online course. It’s remarkable in a way—folks can do further educational work without having to relocate, and unlike other Doctor of Ministry degrees, this one’s courses extend past the standard week intensive into two months online. We “meet” synchronously and chew over the work each of us has done in the last week. Sometimes the face-to-face conversations where we’re sharing our webcams and arguing feel like the real thing.

Sometimes.

Other times, we’re all sitting and waiting while someone fumbles with their webcam. We repeat ourselves: “Can you see me yet?” Someone else’s mic goes out. Or their screen goes dark. I’d been warned you accomplish less pedagogically this way than you do in person, but I’m struck that all this happens even though we have a terrific tech consultant online with us every session. There are a variety of reasons for the technical difficulties apparently—some didn’t pick up the officially licensed headphones and microphone, others are traveling and on some hotel wi-fi without the necessary bandwidth, other times who knows where the gremlins come from? I’m glad to be doing the work; it’s showing me the value in teaching face to face as well as online. And these students are as dynamic as any I’ve known at elite colleges or graduate departments. But the technology makes things different—and not altogether better.

I suppose it’s an old observation that business leaps into new technology and religion waffles behind the pack, unsure of where to go. Even among us religious types, our evangelicals tend to race ahead and mainliners to wring our hands behind. It’s a depressingly repetitive story, and it’s useless. Technology’s good at what it’s good at and not at what it’s not, like every other human endeavor. The good news here is that it can form relationships that bless a whole town economically and culturally. The bad news is that it overpromises. It can indeed extend and supplement relationships, and it can frustrate those very relationships to which it’s promised seamless interaction. What else is new?

Curriculum evangelist indeed. I don’t doubt he’s winning souls, including in my county. My kids will be busy playing angry birds instead of playing outside in this paradise we live in, and I barely have a say in it. Something good may come of it too, but let’s not pretend there’s no potential ill.

Jason Byassee, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is Senior Pastor of Boone United Methodist Church in Boone, NC and a Fellow in Theology and Leadership at Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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